Sunday, August 01, 2021

In 2017, at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, students decided on modifying their annual racism-awareness  "Day of Absence," to expect white students and faculty to stay away from campus and allow only people of color to attend.

One professor of biology, Bret Weinstein, was offended as a liberal for an event where skin color determines who is allowed and not allowed in campus spaces. He wrote a letter protesting the event, and taught his class as usual, and all his students of all races attended without incident.

Weeks later, his letter was publicized and Weinstein went through an Orwellian experience: demonstrations broke out on campus, students chanted his name and called for his resignation. Weinstein tried to speak out, to explain his reasoning, and was not allowed to speak. The next day, as he rode his bike to campus, he saw students taking out their cell phones as he passed by. As he told Haaretz recently, “I thought, what is this? Is this some kind of ambush? And so I rode around to a different entrance to campus and went to the police station. The police were locked inside. They unlocked the door and let me in. And I said to the chief of police: ‘I must be imagining things, but I think that there were people waiting for me.’ She said, ‘I don’t think you were imagining anything. In fact, you’re not safe on your bike. Not only here on campus, but anywhere in town. If they were to catch up to you, I don’t think we could help you.’ ...As I rode back to my house, I was thinking: This can’t be happening in the United States. I’m a civilian who’s incapable of getting protection from the police from a mob of people who have mistaken me for a racist. "

This is a world that Andrew Pessin  knows well. He himself was the object of a similar witch-hunt in 2015 when an anti-Israel student at Connecticut College  dug up an old Facebook post of his, claimed that it was dehumanizing to Palestinians and started a series of events where Pessin was accused of racism and put in a situation where he couldn't defend himself. 

Now, Pessin has written a novel about the toxic atmosphere on campuses today named Nevergreen, an obvious spoof on Evergreen College. Like Evergreen, Nevergreen is in the Pacific Northwest, but it is on an island which used to house an insane asylum.

The story is about a physician, only named "J.", who is convinced to give a guest lecture on an obscure topic at Nevergreen College by a chance encounter with its dean. 

As we soon find out, the inmates - in this case, the students - run the asylum. 

J. ends up giving his lecture to a completely empty room. Yet the next day, he is caught up in a rumor that he said something very offensive, the bored editor of the school newspaper blows up the story and J. finds himself literally running for his life and unable to leave. The faculty is as crazy as the students are; some are trying to out-woke the students while deathly afraid of being denounced by them. Even seeming allies of J. turn against him as the rumors about his lecture take on a life of their own and he literally becomes the "face of hate." 

The book is part comedy and part horror story. From J.'s perspective, he is in real danger, since one cannot distinguish between sanity and insanity at Nevergreen. Yet it is clear to the reader, if not J., that most of the students are just idiots who want to party and get laid, while some really are dangerous - and to someone being "canceled," it is diffcult to tell the difference.

Unlike other horror stories, the monster's motives cannot be discerned, because there are multiple monsters - groups of students at cross-purposes who cancel people for differing reasons or no reasons whatsoever, faculty members who are frightened of their own charges, and others who want to use the resulting chaos for their own personal gain. 

Nevergreen College is so committed to diversity that even Nazis are allowed to have their own student club. But one group of people are conspicuous by their absence - Jews. Pessin hints broadly at a sinister backstory, where a few years earlier the campus was rocked by an unexplained "episode," that followed students going to the Middle East to help bring peace between warring factions and who get slaughtered for their efforts. (It is not coincidence that Pessin gave the newspaper editor the name "Corrie," after another famous former Evergreen student.) The book doesn't say what the "episode" was, but the absence of Jews on campus indicates something terrible happened that drove them out. There are reminders of Jews everywhere, even if the Jews themselves are left unmentioned. Even research into Jewish topics must be done secretly. 

The extreme tolerance for all viewpoints has its limits at Nevergreen. As usual, one group is outside the pale for everyone.

Nevergreen is really good, often hilarious but it is an uneasy humor; the happenings on the fictional bizarro Nevergreen campus are uncomfortably close to what is really happening today at many colleges. It is a world that Pessin knows well, where sanity is not a virtue and may in fact be a thoughtcrime.

The book will be available on September 1, and you can preorder it here.

Here is its video trailer.














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